Lawyers for the estate of a confidential informant killed in a botched sting operation by Miami-Dade Police are accusing the department of witness tampering and obstruction of justice, according to a pleading filed this week in the wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of the dead man’s family.
The filing comes after the victim of a December 2010 home invasion told the Team 6 Investigators police contacted her last month and told her the Redland victims, including confidential informant Rosendo Betancourt, were involved in her home invasion.
Despite repeated inquiries, Linda Horvat said she wasn’t told by police her crime was solved until July 30, two days after NBC6 requested public records from the police involving any prior home invasions they connect to the men they killed on June 30, 2011.
Relying on confessions from the getaway car driver, the lone survivor of the sting who is seeking a reduction in his 27-year prison sentence, police say they identified 15 home invasions connected to that survivor or one or more of those killed. But records released by the department on those 15 cases reveal only one victim in one case identified Betancourt, and did so only after he saw Betancourt’s photo on television after he was killed.
Horvat told Team 6 Investigators she can place only one of those killed in her home: Jorge Lemus, whose killing by police in the Redland is the only one ruled justifiable. Prosecutors said “unusual, counterintuitive, suspicious and/or disturbing factors” precluded them from ruling the other three killings by police were legally justified.
In an interview, Horvat said police public information officer Alvaro Zabaleta called her to say “since these were the guys that perpetrated your crime we would like you to speak about your experience and how outraged you are that they’re obtaining a settlement.”
The Team 6 Investigators revealed last month that families for three of those killed – Lemus, Roger Gonzalez, Sr. and Antonio Andrew – are being paid a total of $600,000 to settle their wrongful death claims against the county.
Betancourt’s lawsuit is pending.
After Team 6 showed Betancourt family lawyers video of what Horvat claims police told her, they filed a motion saying police “have initiated a campaign to falsely implicate Mr. Betancourt in prior home invasions by interviewing previous victims and suggesting that Mr. Betancourt was part of those invasions.”
Horvat said police did not suggest it; they stated it as fact, stating outright the men killed by police, including Betancourt, were in her house terrorizing her family, including her then 6- and 8-year-old children.
But in the hours and days after the Dec. 28, 2010 invasion, she and two other adults in her home described only three invaders:
One, a black man, whom she identified at the time as a car wash worker who frequented her workplace. He was arrested after Horvat said she was 100 percent certain he was one of the armed invaders, but charges were dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence;
Second, a man she now says she is convinced was Lemus;
And third, a man with blonde hair and blue eyes, who she said is not Betancourt, who has black hair and brown eyes.
She now says Betancourt is not one of the men she saw in her house.
But she was so convinced of the Redland victims’ involvement after meeting with Zabaleta and another officer on July 31, she filed a lawsuit the next day seeking damages from the estates of Betancourt and those involved in the $600,000 settlement. She said she will not prosecute that case because too much time has passed from the establishment of the estates for the courts to consider her claims.
After seeing video ofsome of what Horvat said in her interview, Betancourt attorney Andrew Hall said it appeared police were soliciting her “to provide false testimony. … It looked to me like witness tampering, an attempt to cover up by suggesting that my client was actually at this poor lady’s home.”
Zabaleta said the department was not undertaking an effort to color the testimony of witnesses to mitigate what could be substantial damages for his department killing their own informant after he is seen on aerial infrared video with his hands up surrendering to approaching officers.
He also denied telling Horvat or others that Betancourt was involved in their crimes. “No, we just showed them pictures of the individuals involved and they made spontaneous statements,” Zabaleta said.
But Horvat said Zabaleta told her point blank: Betancourt was in her house.
Betancourt, a convicted cocaine trafficker, is heard on surveillance audio telling Gonzalez Sr. he owed him money – what police suspect were unpaid proceeds from the sale of booty Betancourt was supposed to sell from the Gonzalez crew’s prior home invasions, according to police reports.
In police and state attorney’s office records, Betancourt is said to have become a confidential informant after he called Crimestoppers with a tip on the Gonzalez crew, saying he was concerned they were becoming more violent and had begun targeting law-abiding citizens and not just drug dealers and others with illicit cash.
Less than three weeks later, he would help police lure the crew to the county-owned house in the Redland, where more than 100 officers were waiting to spring a trap. Police planned for Betancourt to stay in the vehicle and just drop off the would-be invaders, but Gonzalez Sr. changed the plans, leaving his son, Roger Jr. as the getaway car driver and, it turned out, the only suspect to survive.
Andrew is seen on video lying spread eagle on the ground near officers minutes before he was shot to death by officers, including one who said he was reaching for his waistband.
Gonzalez Sr. is seen curled in the fetal position hiding unarmed under a tree before officers fired 52 rounds at him. Prosecutors wrote in their report they question whether the officer who said he saw Gonzalez reach for his waistband could really see what he said he saw from his position at the time.
Lemus was shot in the head as he held a handgun and was confronted by an officer – the only killing prosecutors found justifiable. His family received a $120,000 settlement, compared to the $240,000 each given to the Gonzalez and Andrew families.
After Lemus is shot, Betancourt is shown raising his hands in surrender and getting on the ground as ordered by police, who would kill him 70 seconds later, claiming he was reaching toward a gun in his waistband.